Champlain Bridge Blues

Conversely, a view from the bridge rather than of it.
Conversely, a view from the bridge rather than of it.

So here’s our situation.

The most used bridge in all of Canada may be in danger of breaking apart and partially collapsing. Last week a known crack was determined to have widened enough emergency repairs and lane closures were merited. We’ve heard this before – it seems like the Champlain Bridge is in a constant state of emergency lane closures and repairs.

As Bruno Bisson of La Presse points out, there’s no Plan B in case the bridge has to be permanently shut down in advance of any proposed replacement. And because there’s no inter-agency nor inter-governmental cooperation on major transit and transport issues in Greater Montreal, there’s also no real hope of creating a Plan B quickly.

Ergo, if the bridge is in worse shape than we’re being told, it may become unusable and create one hell of a transit and traffic problem. One that will require swift corrective action less the closure of the bridge begin to negatively impact the city and region’s economy.

Federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair describes the Tories’ handling of the Champlain Bridge replacement project as ‘inexcusable’ as the project is significantly behind schedule and is currently estimated to cost anywhere from three to five billion dollars. In addition, the poor state of the bridge has been known to the crown corporation in charge of it for some time, and a considerable sum of taxpayers’ money (federal money, not local or provincial just to be precise) has been spent applying band-aid solutions rather than building anything new. The Tories first proposed a bridge replacement project early in their first mandate – seven years ago. Nothing has been accomplished to date, though the estimated cost has increased considerably.

For Context

Fifty million vehicles cross the Champlain Bridge each year, making it the single busiest crossing in all of Canada, working out to roughly 160,000 vehicles per day. Removing it from the city’s ‘transit and traffic equation’ without replacement would be very bad indeed, and not just for the individuals who cross it daily. The Champlain Bridge is bigger than itself, and if removed there will be a profoundly negative cascade effect presenting new stresses on every other bridge, tunnel and transit system used to cross the river.

Though the bridge is only fifty-one years old and the youngest of the city’s four principle bridges, it was built with an apparently poor quality concrete that has eroded far quicker than expected. Transport Canada argues that the span was never intended to handle it’s current operating capacity and that de-icing salt, sprayed in the volumes necessary to clear the bridge for high-traffic use, has expedited the deterioration of the concrete.

Today’s news is that a steel ‘super beam’ will be installed to buttress a girder against any further deterioration of its concrete. We should note that this beam was delivered in 2009; there are 350 beams on the bridge in various states of deterioration, and so I can imagine the Transport Canada may have several of these so-called ‘super beams’ lying around their worksites waiting to be used. Ergo, they’re anticipating years of serious maintenance and repairs anyways.

A report issued by the Fed back in 2011 estimated that yearly maintenance of the deteriorating bridge (assumedly at constant current usage rates) would come out to a quarter billion dollars over the course of a decade without solving anything: the bridge will remain in poor shape without replacement, though assumedly the quarter-billion dollar investment would, at the very least, keep it going for a decade.

Now Federal Transport Minister Denis Lebel is indicating the construction of the new bridge may be expedited to be completed before the originally estimated date of completion set at 2021.

When was the last time the Tories got anything built and delivered on schedule? We have reason to doubt such pronouncements; not only are the Tories notoriously bad for over-promising and under-delivering, there’s no political advantage in speeding up construction.

Questions

Does the cost of the new bridge (which, at $5 billion is ridiculously expensive) include the cost of maintaining the current bridge?

It’s not like the question is ‘either we continue maintaining the bridge for an estimated quarter billion or we replace it for five’ – either both need to occur simultaneously or the current bridge is maintained up to the point it becomes redundant. Obviously, the current bridge can’t be shut down while the next one is being built.

And yet, with each and every car, truck and bus passing over it, with every winter and every snowfall, it gets weaker, and we may have painted ourselves into a corner where that becomes our reality…

I’d like to know, were structural maintenance and repairs to be suspended, how long would it take before the bridge became unusable? How long before pieces begin to fall off? How long until it collapses?

Assuming the bridge has a definitive expiry date, how much longer can Transport Canada and the Jacques Cartier and Champlain Bridge Corporation realistically and cost-effectively maintain it and how much is too much to spend, per year, on bridge maintenance and repairs?

Would the bridge last longer/ cost less to maintain and repair each year if the traffic volume were reduced through the expansion of alternative transit systems?

As to the cost of the new bridge, where exactly is the money coming from? There’s been talk of tolls used to pay down the cost once the bridge is completed. But does this mean that the federal government has three to five billion dollars up front to pay the cost of the bridge?

It’s these last two points that brings us back to the issue of why we need a greater degree of inter-agency cooperation; if the Fed has five billion dollars to spend on a new bridge, why not invest that money in developing mass-transit systems that lessen the load on the Champlain? Reducing the bridge’s traffic volume may extend its life, or at the very least make it easier to repair and maintain. Even if the estimated cost to maintain and repair the Champlain Bridge for the next decade were to double to $500 million, this would be but a tenth the cost of the bridge’s apparent successor.

Cooperation

At the end of the day the issue isn’t ‘how do we replace the Champlain Bridge’, but rather ‘how do we get anywhere from fifty to a hundred thousand motorists to give up their cars for the purposes of commuting in and out of the city?’

Wouldn’t cutting one to two-thirds of the bridge’s daily vehicle crossings not only potentially extend the bridge’s lifespan but reduce yearly maintenance and repair costs as well?

And if you could divert the rest of those vehicles onto other bridges without over-loading them, would we even still need a Champlain Bridge at all?

And if those costs were reduced, wouldn’t that have an effect on the total cost of the bridge’s replacement, given that the proposed replacement wouldn’t need to be built as quickly, nor to the same, rather grandiose specifications as the current proposal?

If the Tories want to do something that will actually benefit the people of Greater Montreal, then it stands to reason they should cooperate, fully, with provincial and local authorities to incite and propel a major shift towards public transit commuting throughout the South Shore.

As it already stands, the AMT’s Candiac line is the fastest growing (in terms of usage) of the whole system, but both South Shore AMT lines combined carry less than half what the AMT’s Deux-Montagnes line carries by itself. In order to make the AMT’s South Shore lines more usable, they’ll need to increase operational tempo, and this in turn means working out a new agreement with the owner of the Victoria Bridge, which is to say Canadian National Railways.

Further still, an entire new network of bus routes will have to be created to quickly pull in commuters from the sprawling suburbs to either the Longueuil Métro station or the many commuter rail stations operated by the AMT, though this is quite outside further incentives, such as rebates on transit passes. Constructing large parking lots and parking garages near bus and train hubs could help keep cars on the South Shore, but who would be responsible for such construction isn’t entirely clear.

The major point is that the combined cost of maintaining the Champlain Bridge so that it doesn’t deteriorate quite as quickly, coupled with investments in public transit to lessen the bridge’s load, both come out to significantly less than building a ten-lane super bridge. Under ideal circumstances the Champlain would only be used by trucks, buses and people who cannot depend on public transit for their day-to-day work, with commuters dispersed across other modes. And if absolutely necessary, perhaps the Champlain Ice Bridge could be fitted with a temporary light-rail system to further encourage the shift away from car commuting.

But all this requires, as I mentioned before, an entirely new way of looking at transit and transport issues, one that looks at the big picture rather than short-sighted notions of limited responsibility.

As long as we’re dealing with an alphabet soup of transit agencies with competing political interests we gain nothing; as long as we wait for the Fed to replace the bridge we get nothing but a lot of cheap talk.

If our newly elected mayor is looking for something to do, I suggest he meet with the mayor of Longueuil, the heads of the RTL, AMT and STM and see what short-term measures they could put into place to turn down vehicular volume on the Champlain Bridge, and as quickly as possible too.

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